The inaugural UEFA Youth League has proved a resounding success on and off the pitch – just days after FC Barcelona became the first winners of the Lennart Johansson trophy, focus is already switching to the future.
While the competition is just halfway through its two-year test phase, UEFA is already looking into alternative formats which may come into force by the 2015/16 season. Access to the competition is presently reserved for the youth teams of the 32 participating clubs in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
"UEFA, working with the European Club Association and the clubs involved, is already looking into new formats after this two-year test phase," said UEFA Club Competitions Committee chairman Michael van Praag. "The competition so far has produced high-quality, competitive football, so there are no concerns there. But these new format proposals would foresee the inclusion of more youth champions from more national associations, in order to have a wider representation in the UEFA Youth League.
"We have now set a high standard for the competition, and we want to see it get even better. A different format would ensure that all the best youth teams in Europe could participate. The idea is to have the new format approved in time to allow the national associations and clubs to prepare accordingly for the 2015/16 season."
Before then, a period of reflection on the debut campaign will take place; all 32 sides who took part in 2013/14 have already been asked for their views on the new tournament. "The response from the clubs has been overwhelmingly positive," Van Praag reflected. "Indeed, in an internal survey conducted of all 32 competition clubs, 31 clubs expressed their satisfaction with the competition and gave input to further improve the competition. Only one club still had its doubts over certain aspects of the competition. UEFA has worked together with the clubs to make the opening season of this exciting new competition a great success."
The competition culminated in a spectacular finals week at the Colovray Stadium in Nyon, just a misplaced shot away from UEFA's headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva. The two semi-finals and final produced eight goals, four penalties, one red card, a goal from the halfway line in the closing minutes of the decider and worthy champions in Barcelona. The fixtures were watched by 12,000 people at the stadium and many thousands more on Eurosport.
"The final week could not have gone any better," Van Praag said. "We had perfect weather, and that, combined with a specially installed new pitch, led to some wonderful football; it was a real showcase for the standard of European youth football. The local football community and fans came out to support, with the stadium full for all three games, and the players got the chance to mix and socialise, and experience a real tournament atmosphere."
Indeed, player welfare, development and education were key driving forces behind the creation of the competition, and this was appreciated by the clubs. "All clubs have indicated to UEFA that they found the competition calendar and matchdays worked well," Van Praag explained. "The vast majority of clubs also indicated that the format of the competition, player registration process, playing conditions and travel policy – especially youth squads travelling with the senior team – were particularly successful.
"Clubs also told UEFA that the UEFA Youth League contributes positively to their players and their youth training programmes, and all clubs reported that their players were given great international experience at club level through the competition. The competing clubs also said the competition helped reduce the gap between youth and senior teams, and brought educational value to their players."
The tournament produced a high standard of football, with a huge amount of goals and highly competitive matches. Indeed, the competitive balance of the event has actually outstripped this season's UEFA Champions League, with 55% of games ending in draws or victories by a one-goal margin. There were 378 goals scored in the competition at an average of 3.4 per match. Eventual winners Barcelona found the net 32 times in their ten fixtures, including an 11-goal haul from tournament top scorer Munir El Haddadi, crowned by that stunning 50-metre effort to seal the Catalan outfit's victory in the showpiece.
"It was a fitting end to a wonderful first season of the UEFA Youth League," Van Praag concluded. "The competition has seen ambition matched by achievement, and the UEFA Youth League, like the young players who took part, will get even better in the years to come."
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